[The following discussion of Gaskell's life and works comes from an 1897 book, Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign: A Book of Appreciations, in which women writers discussed their predecessors. Numbers between brackets indicate page breaks in the orginal text This text comes from Project Gutenberg. — George P. Landow.]
f all the novelists of Queen Victoria's reign there is not one to whom the present writer turns with such a sense of love and gratitude as to Mrs. Gaskell. This feeling is undoubtedly shared by thousands of men and women, for about all the novels there is that wonderful sense of sympathy, that broad human interest which appeals to readers of every description. The hard-worked little girl in the schoolroom can forget the sorrows of arithmetic or the vexations of French verbs as she pores over Wives and Daughters on a Saturday half-holiday, and, as George Sand remarked to Lord Houghton, this same book, Wives and Daughters, "would rivet the attention of the most blasé man of the world."
With the exception of her powerful Life of Charlotte Brontë, Mrs. Gaskell wrote only novels or short stories.[119/120] The enormous difficulties which attended the writing of a biography of the author of Jane Eyre would, we venture to think, have baffled any other writer of that time. It is easy now, years after Charlotte Brontë's death, to criticise the wisdom of this or that page, to hunt up slight mistakes, to maintain that in some details Mrs. Gaskell was wrong. To be wise too late is an easy and, to some apparently, a most grateful task; but it would, nevertheless, be hard to find a biography of more fascinating interest, or one which more successfully grappled with the great difficulty of the undertaking.
As Mr. Clement Shorter remarks, the Life of Charlotte Brontë "ranks with Boswell's Life of Johnson and Lockhart's Life of Scott." It is pleasant, too, to read Charlotte Brontë's own words in a letter to Mr. Williams, where she mentions her first letter from her future friend and biographer:
The letter you forwarded this morning was from Mrs. Gaskell, authoress of 'Mary Barton.' She said I was not to answer it, but I cannot help doing so. The note brought the tears to my eyes. She is a good, she is a great woman. Proud am I that I can touch a chord of sympathy in souls so noble. In Mrs. Gaskell's nature it mournfully pleases me to fancy a remote affinity to my sister Emily. In Miss Martineau's mind I have always [120/121] felt the same, though there are wide differences. Both these ladies are above me — certainly far my superiors in attainments and experience. I think I could look up to them if I knew them."
For lovers of the author of Mary Barton it is hard, however, not to feel a grudge against the Life of Charlotte Brontë — or, rather, the reception accorded to it. Owing to the violent attacks to which it gave rise, to a threatened action for libel on the part of some of those mentioned in the book, and to the manifold annoyances to which the publication of the Biography subjected the writer, Mrs. Gaskell determined that no record of her own life should be written.
"Be sure," he says, "that the book will do good. It will shame literary people into some stronger belief that a simple, virtuous, practical home-life is consistent with high imaginative genius; and it will shame, too, the prudery of a not over-cleanly, though carefully whitewashed, age, into believing that purity is now (as in all ages till now) quite compatible with the knowledge of evil. I confess that the book has made me ashamed of myself. Jane Eyre I hardly looked into, very seldom reading a work [121/122] of fiction — yours, indeed, and Thackeray's are the only ones I care to open. 'Shirley' disgusted me at the opening, and I gave up the writer and her books with the notion that she was a person who liked coarseness. How I misjudged her! and how thankful I am that I never put a word of my misconceptions into print, or recorded my misjudgments of one who is a whole heaven above me. Well have you done your work, and given us a picture of a valiant woman made perfect by sufferings. I shall now read carefully and lovingly every word she has written."
Mrs. Gaskell's wish regarding her own biography has, of course, been respected by her family; but the world is the poorer, and it is impossible not to regret that the life of so dearly loved a writer must never be attempted.
The books reveal a mind as delicately pure as a child's, wedded to that true mother's heart which is wide enough to take in all the needy. Looking, moreover, at that goodly row of novels — whether in the dear old shabby volumes that have been read and re-read for years, or in that dainty little set recently published in a case, which the rising generation can enjoy — one cannot help reflecting that here is "A Little Child's Monument," surely the most beautiful memorial of a great love and a [122/123] great grief that could be imagined. It was not until the death of her little child — the only son of the family — that Mrs. Gaskell, completely broken down by grief, began, at her husband's suggestion, to write. And thus a great sorrow brought forth a rich and wonderful harvest, as grief borne with strength and courage always may do; and the world has good reason to remember that little ten months' child whose short life brought about such great results.
A question naturally suggests itself at this point as to Mrs. Gaskell's birth and education. How far had she inherited her literary gifts? And in what way had her mind been influenced by the surroundings of her childhood and girlhood? Her mother, Mrs. Stevenson, was a Miss Holland, of Sandlebridge, in Cheshire; her father — William Stevenson — was at first classical tutor in the Manchester Academy, and later on, during his residence in Edinburgh, was editor of the Scots Magazine and a frequent contributor to the Edinburgh Review. He was next appointed Keeper of the Records to the Treasury, an appointment which caused his removal from Edinburgh to Chelsea; and it was there, in Cheyne Row, that Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson, the future novelist, was born.
Owing to the death of her mother, she was adopted when only a month old by her aunt, Mrs. Lumb, and [123/124] taken to Knutsford, in Cheshire, the little town so wonderfully described in "Cranford." For two years in her girlhood she was educated at Stratford-on-Avon, walking in the flowery meadows where Shakspere once walked, worshipping in the stately old church where he worshipped, and where he willed that his body should be left at rest; nor is it possible to help imagining that the associations of that ideal place had an influence on the mind of the future writer, doing something to give that essentially English tone which characterises all her books.
After her father's second marriage she went to live with him, and her education was superintended by him until his death in 1829, when she once more returned to Knutsford. Here, at the age of twenty-two, she was married to the Rev. William Gaskell, M.A., of Cross Street Chapel, Manchester; and Manchester remained her home ever after.
Such are the brief outlines of a life story which was to have such a wide and lasting influence for good. For nothing is more striking than this when we think over the well-known novels — they are not only consummate works of art, full of literary charm, perfect in style and rich with the most delightful humour and pathos — they are books from which that morbid lingering over the loathsome [124/125] details of vice, those sensuous descriptions of sin too rife in the novels of the present day, are altogether excluded.
Not that the stories are namby-pamby, or unreal in any sense; they are wholly free from the horrid prudery, the Pharisaical temper, which makes a merit of walking through life in blinkers and refuses to know of anything that can shock the respectable. Mrs. Gaskell was too genuine an artist to fall either into this error or into the error of bad taste and want of reserve. She drew life with utter reverence; she held the highest of all ideals, and she dared to be true.
How tender and womanly and noble, for instance, is her treatment of the difficult subject which forms the motif of Ruth! How sorrowfully true to life is the story of the dressmaker's apprentice with no place in which to spend her Sunday afternoons! We seem ourselves to breathe the dreadful "stuffy" atmosphere of the workroom, to feel the dreary monotony of the long day's work. It is so natural that the girl's fancy should be caught by Henry Bellingham, who was courteous to her when she mended the torn dress of his partner at the ball; so inevitable that she should lose her heart to him when she witnessed his gallant rescue of the drowning child. But her fall was not inevitable, and one of the finest bits in the whole novel is the description of Ruth's hesitation [125/126] in the inn parlour when, finding herself most cruelly and unjustly cast off by her employer, she has just accepted her lover's suggestion that she shall go with him to London, little guessing what the promise involved, yet intuitively feeling that her consent had been unwise.
Ruth became as hot as she had previously been cold, and went and opened the window, and leant out into the still, sweet evening air. The bush of sweetbriar underneath the window scented the place, and the delicious fragrance reminded her of her old home. I think scents affect and quicken the memory even more than either sights or sounds; for Ruth had instantly before her eyes the little garden beneath the window of her mother's room, with the old man leaning on his stick watching her, just as he had done not three hours before on that very afternoon." She remembers the faithful love of the old labouring man and his wife who had served her parents in their lifetime, and for their sake would help and advise her now. Would it not be better to go to them?
She put on her bonnet and opened the parlour door; but then she saw the square figure of the landlord standing at the open house door, smoking his evening pipe, and looming large and distinct against the dark air and landscape beyond. Ruth remembered the cup of tea that she had drunk; it must be paid for, and she had no money with [126/127] her. She feared that he would not let her leave the house without paying. She thought that she would leave a note for Mr. Bellingham saying where she was gone, and how she had left the house in debt, for (like a child) all dilemmas appeared of equal magnitude to her; and the difficulty of passing the landlord while he stood there, and of giving him an explanation of the circumstances, appeared insuperable, and as awkward and fraught with inconvenience as far more serious situations. She kept peeping out of her room after she had written her little pencil note, to see if the outer door was still obstructed. There he stood motionless, enjoying his pipe, and looking out into the darkness which gathered thick with the coming night. The fumes of the tobacco were carried into the house and brought back Ruth's sick headache. Her energy left her; she became stupid and languid, and incapable of spirited exertion; she modified her plan of action to the determination of asking Mr. Bellingham to take her to Milham Grange, to the care of her humble friends, instead of to London. And she thought in her simplicity that he would instantly consent when he had heard her reasons.
The selfishness of the man who took advantage of her weakness and ignorance is finely drawn because it is not at all exaggerated. Henry Bellingham is no monster of [127/128] wickedness, but a man with many fine qualities spoilt by an over-indulgent and unprincipled mother, and yielding too easily to her worldly-wise arguments.
Ruth first sees a faint trace of his selfishness — she calls it "unfairness" — when, on their arrival in Wales, he persuades the landlady to give them rooms in the hotel and to turn out on a false pretext some other guests into the dépendance across the road. She understands his selfish littleness of soul only too well when, years after, she talks to him during that wonderfully described interview in the chapter called "The Meeting on the Sands." He cannot in the least understand her. "The deep sense of penitence she expressed he took for earthly shame, which he imagined he could soon soothe away." He actually has the audacity to tempt her a second time; then, after her indignant refusal, he offers her marriage. To his great amazement she refuses this too. "Why, what on earth makes you say that?" asked he....
“I do not love you. I did once. Don't say I did not love you then; but I do not now. I could never love you again. All you have said and done since you came to Abermouth has only made me wonder how I ever could have loved you. We are very far apart; the time that has pressed down my life like brands of hot iron, and scarred me for ever, has been nothing to you. You have talked [128/129] of it with no sound of moaning in your voice, no shadow over the brightness of your face; it has left no sense of sin on your conscience, while me it haunts and haunts; and yet I might plead that I was an ignorant child; only I will not plead anything, for God knows all. But this is only one piece of our great difference.”
“You mean that I am no saint," he said, impatient at her speech. "Granted. But people who are no saints have made very good husbands before now. Come, don't let any morbid, overstrained conscientiousness interfere with substantial happiness — happiness both to you and to me — for I am sure I can make you happy — ay! and make you love me too, in spite of your pretty defiance.... And here are advantages for Leonard, to be gained by you quite in a holy and legitimate way."
She stood very erect.
“If there was one thing needed to confirm me, you have named it. You shall have nothing to do with my boy by my consent, much less by my agency. I would rather see him working on the roadside than leading such a life — being such a one as you are.... If at last I have spoken out too harshly and too much in a spirit of judgment, the fault is yours. If there were no other reason to prevent our marriage but the one fact that it would bring Leonard into contact with you, that would be enough.” [129/130]
Later on, a fever visits the town, and Ruth becomes a nurse. When she hears that the father of her child is ill and untended she volunteers to nurse him, and, being already worn out with work, she dies in consequence. The man's smallness of mind, his contemptible selfishness, are finely indicated in the scene where he goes to look at Ruth as she lies dead.
He was "disturbed" by the distress of the old servant Sally, and saying, "Come, my good woman! we must all die," tries to console her with a sovereign!!
The old servant turns upon him indignantly, then "bent down and kissed the lips from whose marble, unyielding touch he recoiled even in thought." At that moment the old minister, who had sheltered Ruth in her trouble, enters. Henry makes many offers to him as to providing for Ruth's child, Leonard, and says, "I cannot tell you how I regret that she should have died in consequence of her love to me." But from gentle old Mr. Benson he receives only an icy refusal, and the stern words, "Men may call such actions as yours youthful follies. There is another name for them with God."
The sadness of the book is relieved by the delightful humour of Sally, the servant. The account of the wooing of Jeremiah Dixon is a masterpiece; and Sally's hesitation when, having found her proof against the attractions of [130/131] "a four-roomed house, furniture conformable, and eighty pounds a year," her lover mentions the pig that will be ready for killing by Christmas, is a delicious bit of comedy.
“Well, now! would you believe it? the pig were a temptation. I'd a receipt for curing hams.... However, I resisted. Says I, very stern, because I felt I'd been wavering, 'Master Dixon, once for all, pig or no pig, I'll not marry you.”
The description of the minister's home is very beautiful. Here are a few lines which show in what its charm consisted:
In the Bensons' house there was the same unconsciousness of individual merit, the same absence of introspection and analysis of motive, as there had been in her mother; but it seemed that their lives were pure and good not merely from a lovely and beautiful nature, but from some law the obedience to which was of itself harmonious peace, and which governed them.... This household had many failings; they were but human, and, with all their loving desire to bring their lives into harmony with the will of God, they often erred and fell short. But somehow the very errors and faults of one individual served to call out higher excellences in another; and so they reacted upon each other, and the result of short discords was exceeding harmony and peace. [131/132]
The publication of Ruth, with its brave, outspoken words, its fearless demand for one standard of morality for men and women, subjected the author to many attacks, as we may gather from the following warm-hearted letter by Charles Kingsley:
July 25, 1853.
I am sure that you will excuse my writing to you thus abruptly when you read the cause of my writing. I am told, to my great astonishment, that you had heard painful speeches on account of 'Ruth'; what was told me raised all my indignation and disgust.... Among all my large acquaintance I never heard, or have heard, but one unanimous opinion of the beauty and righteousness of the book, and that above all from really good women. If you could have heard the things which I heard spoken of it this evening by a thorough High Church, fine lady of the world, and by her daughter, too, as pure and pious a soul as one need see, you would have no more doubt than I have, that, whatsoever the 'snobs' and the bigots may think, English people, in general, have but one opinion of 'Ruth,' and that is, one of utter satisfaction. I doubt not you have had this said to you already often. Believe me, you may have it said to you as often as you will by the purest and most [132/133] refined of English women. May God bless you, and help you to write many more such books as you have already written, is the fervent wish of your very faithful servant,
C. KingsleyMary Barton, which was the first of the novels, was published in 1848, and this powerful and fascinating story at once set Mrs. Gaskell in the first rank of English novelists. People differed as to the views set forth in the book, but all were agreed as to its literary force and its great merits. Like Alton Locke, it has done much to break down class barriers and make the rich try to understand the poor; and when we see the great advance in this direction which has been made since the date of its publication, we are able partly to realise how startling the first appearance of such a book must have been. The secret of the extraordinary power which the book exercises on its readers is, probably, that the writer takes one into the very heart of the life she is describing. [133/134]
Most books of the sort fail to arrest our attention. Why? Because they are written either as mere "goody" books for parish libraries, and are carefully watered down lest they should prove too sensational and enthralling; or because they are written by people who have only a surface knowledge of the characters they describe and the life they would fain depict. David Copperfield is probably the most popular book Dickens ever wrote, and is likely to outlive his other works, just because he himself knew so thoroughly well all that his hero had to pass through, and could draw from real knowledge the characters in the background. And at the present time we are all able to understand the Indian Mutiny in a way that has never been possible before, because Mrs. Steel in her wonderful novel, On the Face of the Waters, has, through her knowledge of native life, given us a real insight into the heart of a great nation. [134/135]
Brilliant trash may succeed for two or three seasons, but unless there is in it some germ of real truth which appeals to the heart and conscience it will not live. Sensationalism alone will not hold its ground. There must be in the writer a real deep inner knowledge of his subject if the book is to do its true work. And we venture to think that Mary Barton, which for nearly half a century has been influencing people all over the world, owes its vitality very largely to the fact that Mrs. Gaskell knew the working people of Manchester, not as a professional doler out of tracts or charitable relief, not in any detestable, patronising way, but knew them as friends.
This surely is the reason why the characters in the novel are so intensely real. What could be finer than the portrait of Mary herself, from the time when we are first introduced to her as the young apprentice to a milliner and dressmaker, to the end of the book, when she has passed through her great agony? How entirely the reader learns to live with her in her brave struggle to prove her lover's innocence! One of the most powerful parts of the book is the description of her plucky pursuit of the good ship John Cropper, on board of which was the only man who could save her lover's life by proving an alibi. [135/136]
But it is not only the leading characters that are so genuine and so true to life. Old Ben Sturgis, the boat-man, rough of speech but with more heart than many a smooth-tongued talker; his wife, who sheltered Mary when she had no notion what manner of woman she was; Job Legh, who proved such a good friend to both hero and heroine in their trouble, and whose well-meaning deception of old Mrs. Wilson is so humorously described; John Barton, the father, with the mournful failure at the close of his upright life; old Mr. Carson, the rich father of the murdered man, with his thirst for vengeance, and his tardy but real forgiveness, when he let himself be led by a little child — all these are living men and women, not puppets; while in the character and the tragic story of poor Esther we see the fruits of the writer's deep knowledge of the life of those she helped when released from gaol.
But Mrs. Gaskell looked on both sides of the question. In North and South, published in 1855, she deals with the labour question from the master's standpoint, and in Mr. Thornton draws a most striking picture of a manufacturer who is just and well-meaning — one who really respects and cares for the men he employs. The main interest of this book lies, however, in the character of the heroine, Margaret, who is placed in a most cruel dilemma by a ne'er-do-well brother whom she shields. By far the most dramatic scene is that in which, to enable Frederick to escape, Margaret tells a deliberate falsehood to the detective who is in search of him. The torture of mind she suffers afterwards for having uttered this intentional lie, and the difficult question whether under any circumstances a lie is warrantable, are dealt with in the writer's most powerful way. [136/137]
In 1853 — the same year in which Ruth was published — the greatest of all Mrs. Gaskell's works appeared, the inimitable Cranford. For humour and for pathos we have nothing like this in all the Victorian literature. It is a book of which one can never tire: yet it can scarcely be said to have a plot at all, being just the most delicate miniature painting of a small old-fashioned country town and its inhabitants. What English man or woman is there, however, who will not read and re-read its pages with laughter and tears?
Cranford is said to be in many respects the Knutsford of Mrs. Gaskell's childhood and youth, and there is something so wonderfully lifelike in the descriptions of the manners and customs of the very select little community that one is inclined to believe that there is truth in the assertion. They were gently bred, those old Cranford folk, with their "elegant economy," their hatred of all display, and their considerate tact. There is pathos as well as fun in the description of Mrs. Forrester pretending not to know what cakes were sent up "at a party in her baby-house of a dwelling ... though she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew, she had been busy all the morning making tea-bread and sponge-cakes! "[137/138]
There is an air of leisure and peacefulness in every page of the book, for there was no hurrying life among those dignified old people. "I had often occasion to notice the use that was made of fragments and small opportunities in Cranford: the rose-leaves that were gathered ere they fell to make into a pot-pourri for some one who had no garden; the little bundles of lavender-flowers sent to some town-dweller. Things that many would despise, and actions which it seemed scarcely worth while to perform, were all attended to in Cranford."
Who has not laughed over Miss Betsy Barker's Alderney cow "meekly going to her pasture, clad in dark grey flannel" after her disaster in the lime-pit! or over the masterly description of Miss Jenkyns, who "wore a cravat, and a little bonnet like a jockey-cap, and altogether had the appearance of a strong-minded woman; although she would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! she knew they were superior."
Dear old Miss Matty, however, with her reverence for the stronger sister, and her love affair of long ago, has a closer hold on the heart of the reader. The description of the meeting of the former lovers is idyllic; and when Thomas Holbrook dies unexpectedly, soon after, the woman whose love-story had been spoilt by the home authorities reverses her own ordinance against "followers" in the case of Martha, the maid-servant, but otherwise makes no sign. [139/139]
Miss Matty made a strong effort to conceal her feelings — a concealment she practised even with me, for she has never alluded to Mr. Holbrook again, though the book he gave her lies with her Bible on the little table by her bedside. She did not think I heard her when she asked the little milliner of Cranford to make her caps something like the Honourable Mrs. Jamieson's, or that I noticed the reply:
“But she wears widows' caps, ma'am!”
“Oh? I only meant something in that style; not widows', of course, but rather like Mrs. Jamieson's.” [139/140]
In the whole book there is not a character that we cannot vividly realise: the Honourable (but sleepy) Mrs. Jamieson; brisk, cheerful Lady Glenmire, who married the sensible country doctor and sacrificed her title to become plain Mrs. Hoggins; Miss Pole, who always with withering scorn called ghosts "indigestion," until the night they heard of the headless lady who had been seen wringing her hands in Darkness Lane, when, to avoid "the woebegone trunk," she with tremulous dignity offered the sedan chairman an extra shilling to go round another way! Captain Brown with his devotion to the writings of Mr. Boz and his feud with Miss Jenkyns as to the superior merits of Dr. Johnson; and Peter, the long-lost brother, who from first to last remains an inveterate practical joker. One and all they become our life-long friends, while the book stands alone as a perfect picture of English country town society fifty years ago.
Mrs. Gaskell's shorter stories are scarcely equal to the novels, yet some of them are very beautiful. "Cousin Phillis," for example, gives one more of the real atmosphere of country life than any other writer except Wordsworth. We seem actually to smell the new-mown hay as we read the story.
Charming, too, is "My Lady Ludlow" with her genteel horror of dissenters subdued in the end by her genuine good feeling. How often one has longed for that comfortable square pew of hers in the parish church, in which, if she did not like the sermon, she would pull up a glass window as though she had been in her coach, and shut out the sound of the obnoxious preacher! But, with all her peculiarities, she was the most courteous of women — a lady in the true sense of the word — and when people smiled at a shy and untaught visitor who spread out her handkerchief on the front of her dress as the footman handed her coffee, my Lady Ludlow with infinite tact and grace promptly spread her handkerchief exactly in the same fashion which the tradesman's wife had adopted. [140/141]
Among the short tragic stories, the most striking is one called "The Crooked Branch," in which the scene at the assizes has almost unrivalled power; while among the lighter short stories, "My French Master," with its delicate portraiture of the old refugee, and "Mr. Harrison's Confessions," the delightfully written love-story of a young country doctor, are perhaps the most enjoyable.
In 1863 the novel Sylvia's Lovers was published, and although, by its fine description of old Whitby and the pathos of the story, it has won many admirers, we infinitely prefer its successor, Wives and Daughters. There is something very sad in the thought that this last and best of the writer's stories was left unfinished; but happily very little remained to be told, and that little was tenderly touched in to the almost perfect picture of English home life by the daughter who had been not only Mrs. Gaskell's child but her friend. "Wives and Daughters will always remain as a true and vivid and powerful study of life and character; while Molly Gibson, with her loyal heart and sweet sunshiny nature, will, we venture to think, better represent the majority of English girls than the happily abnormal Dodos and Millicent Chynes of present-day fashion. [141/142]
In Mr. Gibson's second wife the author has given us a most subtle study of a thoroughly selfish and false-hearted woman, and she is made all the more repulsive because of her outward charms, her soft seductive voice and her lavish employment of terms of endearment. Wonderfully clever, too, is the study of poor little Cynthia, her daughter, whose relations to Molly are most charmingly drawn.
The story was just approaching its happy and wholesome ending, and the difficulties which had parted Roger Hamley and Molly had just disappeared, when death summoned the writer from a world she had done so much to brighten and to raise. On Sunday evening, November 12, 1865, Mrs. Gaskell died quite suddenly at Holybourne, Alton, Hampshire, a house which she had recently bought as a surprise for her husband. Sad as such a death must always be for those who are left behind, one can imagine nothing happier than "death in harness" for a worker who loves his work.
.... There's rest above.
Below let work be death, if work be love!"
Her "last days," wrote one of those who knew her best, "had been full of loving thought and tender help for others. She was so sweet and dear and noble beyond words." That is the summing-up of the whole; and, after all, what better could a long biography give us? The motto of all of us should surely be the words of Mme. Viardot Garcia: "First I am a woman ... then I am an artist." And assuredly Mrs. Gaskell's life was ruled on those lines.
"It was wonderful" — wrote her daughter, Mrs. Holland, in a letter to me the other day — "how her writing [142/143] never interfered with her social or domestic duties. I think she was the best and most practical housekeeper I ever came across, and the brightest, most agreeable hostess, to say nothing of being everything as a mother and friend. She combined both, being my mother and greatest friend in a way you do not often, I think, find between mother and daughter."
Some people are fond of rashly asserting that the ideal wife and mother cares little and knows less about the world beyond the little world of home. Mrs. Gaskell, however, took a keen interest in the questions of the day, and was a Liberal in politics; while it is quite evident that neither these wider interests nor her philanthropic work tended to interfere with the home life, which was clearly of the noblest type.
The friend as well as the mother of her children, the sharer of all her husband's interests, she yet found time to use to the utmost the great literary gift that had been entrusted to her; while her sympathy for those in trouble was shown not only in the powerful pleading of her novels, but in quiet, practical work in connection with prisoners. She was one of the fellow labourers of Thomas Wright, the well-known prison philanthropist, and was able to help in finding places for young girls who had been discharged from prison. For working women she also held [143/144] classes, and both among the poor and the rich had many close friendships.
How far the characters in the novels were studied from life is a question which naturally suggests itself; and Mrs. Holland replies to it as follows: "I do not think my mother ever consciously took her characters from special individuals, but we who knew often thought we recognised people, and would tell her, 'Oh, so and so is just like Mr. Blank,' or something of that kind; and she would say, 'So it is, but I never meant it for him.' And really many of the characters are from originals, or rather are like originals, but they were not consciously meant to be like."
For another detail which will interest Mrs. Gaskell's fellow workers I am indebted to the same source:
Sometimes she planned her novels more or less beforehand, but in many cases, certainly in that of Wives and Daughters, she had very little plot made beforehand, but planned her story as she wrote. She generally wrote in the morning, but sometimes late at night, when the house was quiet.
Few writers, we think, have exercised a more thoroughly wholesome influence over their readers than Mrs. Gaskell. Her books, with their wide human sympathies, their tender comprehension of human frailty, their bright flashes of humour and their infinite pathos, seem to plead with us to [144/145] love one another. Through them all we seem to hear the author's voice imploring us to "seize the day" and to "make friends," as she does in actual words at the close of one of her Christmas stories, adding pathetically: "I ask it of you for the sake of that old angelic song, heard so many years ago by the shepherds, keeping watch by night on Bethlehem Heights."
Lyall, Edna. “Elizabeth Gaskell” in Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign: A Book of Appreciations. London: Hurst & Blackett, 1897. 119-45. Project Gutenberg web version produced by Delphine Lettau, Pat McCoy, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
Last modified 6 July 2014